The BJP government is already facing the ire of the Dalit community in neighbouring Gujarat. But the community’s show of strength at a rally near CST on Tuesday to protest the demolition of Ambedkar Bhavan seems to have really rattled it.
Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis on Wednesday announced that the state government will restore Ambedkar Bhavan before July 30 — the deadline set by Dalit outfits to begin rebuilding the demolished structure.
Fadnavis also announced a probe into the notices issued by the BMC to declare Ambedkar Bhavan a dilapidated structure and also the role of the state’s chief information commissioner Ratnakar Gaikwad, who is advisor to the People Improvement Trust (PIT), which owns and demolished the structure to build a 17-storey tower. Ambedkar Bhavan had significance in Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s movement against untouchability. Several Dalit outfits, including the ones led by Dr Ambedkar’s grandsons Prakash and Anandraj, took part in a protest march in south Mumbai on Tuesday, demanding action against those who had demolished the structure. The issue was also raised in the legislature on Wednesday.
Speaking on the issue in the Legislative Council, Fadnavis called the demolition erroneous. He offered an olive branch to both Prakash and Anandraj. “If Prakash and Anandraj have some plans, we will construct the structure using government funds,” Fadnavis said.
The Ambedkar grandsons, however, did not seem convinced.
Anandraj has turned down the demand saying Ambedkar followers do not want charity from the government. “We are capable enough of rebuilding the structure without any government help,” he said. “Our priority is that the guilty need to be punished,” he said.
Prakash called upon the government to stay out of the controversy. “It is the people’s monument and the people will restore it according to the original structure through Shramdaan [voluntary work],” he said. Prakash said the mass mobilisation witnessed on Tuesday and reaction to the violence against Dalits in Gujarat had unnerved the BJP government. “People had voted for the NDA government on grounds of development, but what we are seeing is freedom being curtailed. We have been exposing the government for the past seven months,” he said.
Tuesday’s rally capitulated Prakash to the centrestage after being sidelined by his bitter rival Ramdas Athawale, who is now Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, for decades.
The Dalits play an important role in the outcome of any elections and every party evoked Dr Ambedkar’s name to garner votes. However for years, the Dalit leadership remained divided, thanks to the state Congress and hence they were deprived of a major share in power. The BJP is wary of the negative reaction from the community ahead of the crucial civic and district council polls to be held next year. It is leaving no stone unturned to win the Mumbai civic body and is hoping the induction of Athawale as Union minister will garner some support from the city’s sizeable socially backward class voters.
According to political commentator Tushar Jagtap, the mainstream parties ensured the Dalits are marginalised. “Parties get votes by aligning with the Dalit parties, but ensure they do not get elected nor any new leadership is created. These bigger parties just keep the Dalit leaders happy with sops and make sure the benefits are not passed to the community,” said Jagtap.